The opening excerpt from my surprising new short story, What Friends Are For. Happy reading!

So I’m at home folding laundry, cos that’s what you do when you got a young kid. Between the shit and the piss and the vomit, seems like all I’m ever doing is laundry. I’d just given Hayley a box of raisins cos she was cranky—she loves her raisins, guaranteed to shut her up for five minutes anyway—when the phone rings. It’s Kate Hensley. Her son, Corbin, goes to daycare with Hayley, which is how Kate and I know each other.

I’m not sure why her Corbin goes to daycare, since as far as I know she doesn’t have a job; I guess she just needs the time to paint her nails and prune her roses in peace. Anyway, she wants to know if I’ll go along with her and Corbin to Alexandra for the morning to have a look round the shops. This is unexpected. I said we knew each other, but we’re not exactly friends. We see each other when we’re picking up or dropping off the kids at daycare, but we’ve never hung out before. I’m up for it. It’s not easy to make friends in Cromwell, especially when you’re a young mum and you’re new to town. I get sideways looks when I walk down the street, pushing a pram, like people are thinking, There goes another one. Should’ve kept her legs closed. They’re right of course, but hey, what’s done is done.

Kate might be posh, but she’s always been friendly enough. I ask her how long we’d be in Alexandra cos my shift at the pub starts at one-thirty and I got to get Hayley to daycare before that. I was late on Monday and the boss gave me a bollocking. I don’t want another one.

She says, “Oh, don’t worry about that. I promise we’ll be back before one.”

I say, “Okay then,” cos the housework can wait, and I think it’ll be nice to go shopping—you know, do some girly things. To tell the truth, I’ve been feeling a bit lonely lately. I stopped going to mothers’ group cos I was the youngest one there, and I didn’t exactly fit in. I mean, they were nice enough to my face, but all they ever did was bitch about other mothers behind their backs, so God only knows what they said about me.

So I’m excited Kate’s called. “It’ll be nice to get out of the house,” I tell her.

“Right, I’ll pick you up in half an hour,” she says.

“See you then.”

Which leaves me just enough time to finish folding the laundry, change Hayley’s bum and put a bit of lippy on. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not usually one for the make-up—you can’t polish a turd, as Davy likes to say—but it’s a little different when you’re going out about town with a woman as beautiful as Kate Hensley. I mean, I’m not vain or nothing, but you gotta make an effort.

I hear the toot of a horn and look out the window to see Kate coming up the driveway in her gleaming white Hyundai Santa Fe. It’s a good measure of the difference in our family incomes. I drive an eighty-four Corolla.

“Nice car,” I tell Kate as I place Hayley’s car seat in the back.

“Isn’t it lovely?” she says. “It’s just perfect for going skiing.”

This is my second winter in Cromwell and I still haven’t been skiing. It’s not on the priority list. I strap Hayley into her seat next to Corbin and put her stroller in the boot and then off we head off down the road. Straight away, Kate starts singing Coming Round the Mountain at the top of her lungs. She can’t sing to save herself.

“Jesus Christ, Kate,” I say.

“Pardon me,” she says, all hoity-toity like, and then I remember that she’s religious and I’ve just blasphemed.

She goes to one of the churches in town—not the cult one, thank God, but she’s bad enough. She’s one of those people who’s always slipping God or church or the Bible into the conversation. Like, How was your weekend, Kate? Oh, really good, thanks, went to a great service on Sunday—we learnt about prayer strategies. Or: Beaut day eh, Kate? Oh, yes, it’s lovely. God certainly has blessed us with the weather this week. She’s good in that she doesn’t pester you to come along to church all the time, but you know she’d be thrilled if you said you would. I’ve even considered it, just for the singing and the company, but the most judgemental people I’ve ever met were Christians and I’ve had my share of being judged.

“Do you mind if I put the radio on?” I say. “Only Coming Round the Mountain’s not my favourite tune.”

She shrugs. “I suppose.”

I switch the radio on and we cross over Deadman’s Point Bridge and turn towards Alexandra. The kids are quiet and it’s nice, you know, listening to the radio and looking out the window at the Clutha River, which on this stretch, up to the Clyde Dam, is less river and more lake. The sky is overcast and the water looks cold and grim and grey in the washed-out winter light. As we get nearer the dam, the steep slopes on the far side of the lake become criss-crossed with a network of dirt roads, made when the dam was constructed. They look like pale scars slashed against the hill rock.

“How’s Davy?” asks Kate, breaking my reverie.

“Who cares? He’s a jerk,” I say.

“Oh no, what’s he done?”

I grunt. “Okay, get this—right? It was my twenty-first birthday last week—”

“Really? Did you have a party?”

“Nah, it was just me and Davy and Hayley. My mate Julz back home said she’d organise one for me if I came up, but it’s just not that easy, is it? She hasn’t got a clue what it’s like to have a kid. None of my old mates do. Mum an’ Dad were gonna come down, but then Dad got called away for work an’ they couldn’t make it.”

“Oh, Tracy, you should have told me. I could have organised something.”

“Nah, it’s all good. I’d accepted the fact that I wasn’t goin’ to have the world’s most excitin’ twenty-first celebration. But I’m still pissed off at Davy cos the present he bought me was shit. Here I was, preparin’ my own birthday dinner since Davy was at work, an’ he comes home with a big box. No flowers or chocolates, just a box. It was gift wrapped, an’ there was a card attached, but I was already suspicious cos I was thinkin’, What on earth do I want that comes in a big box? ‘Open it, open it,’ he says, all excited, so I open it, an’ can you guess what it was?”

“No,” says Kate, shaking her head.

“A fuckin’ cake mixer! I wasn’t expectin’ diamond earrin’s or anythin’ like that, though that would’ve been nice, but for fuck’s sake, a cake mixer! I mean, it’s a nice cake mixer an’ all, but it was my twenty-first, not my fuckin’ fortieth! Most girls my age would be out ragin’ with their mates, but me, I’m stuck at home with my boyfriend an’ our kid—no friends, no family, changin’ shitty nappies an’ goin’ to bed at nine o’clock cos I’m so exhausted! I told him to go mix his own fuckin’ cakes.”

Kate laughs. “Oh, I’m sorry, Tracy. That is a pretty awful twenty-first present. I guess he thought he was doing something nice for you.”

“I know, but what a dickhead.”

“Don’t be too hard on him. At least he cares.”

“Oh, I know he does. It’s just that sometimes he can be such a moron.”

“That’s men for you. I…” She stops, frowning, and then turns her head away. She’s a beautiful woman—sleek and blonde and elegant, with high cheekbones, a sharp nose, and luminous green eyes. Plus she’s got boobs and hips. She kinda reminds of a Barbie doll, only more Presbyterian. She looks straight ahead now, concentrating on driving, and I think to myself, Why am I here? Does she want to be friends? It’s a nice thought, I suppose, but we’re so different. I must look like her ugly, freckle-faced, flat-chested younger cousin.

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